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Report on Port Keats Atlassing expedition (Wadeye and Peppimenarti)

By Richard Noske

One hour before sunrise, 28 September 1999: a small flock of restless but, sadly, flightless creatures gathers under the Berrimah lights in expectation of a great journey. It was the auspicious beginning of a 4-day Bird Atlas expedition into the hitherto ornithologically unexplored region surrounding Port Keats in north-western Northern Territory. This region was barely visited during the first (1977-81) Atlas of Australian Birds, and it was felt by all that Something Seriously Interesting would be discovered on this maiden Northern Territory University (NTU)-supported Bird Atlas trip. The Chosen Six were expedition co-leaders/ drivers Richard Noske (Senior Lecturer in Biology) and Chris Brady (PhD candidate), Yeni Mulyani (PhD candidate), Lauris Sloan (Administration Officer), Ross McDonald (Lecturer in Horticulture) and Ross Marriner (Masters in Tropical Environmental Management candidate).

The birding began in earnest after crossing the Daly River, but a single Partridge Pigeon (a declining species) was noted 5 km before the Scenic Drive/ Daly River turnoff, and this species was not seen again during the trip. Along with a Whistling Kite sitting on its nest, our breakfasting heroes watched in amazed anticipation as three reckless (?crazy) fishermen strutted over a sandbank less than 20 m from where a largish crocodile had been floating minutes before. Apparently the crocodile was not hungry this time.

Five stops later, and with some 50 species on the scoreboard, the party arrived at Peppimenarti. Here we were warmly greeted by Gary and Jackie Fry, teachers at the local school, who made the school facilities available to us. The next day we were guided by Andrew Thomas to various sites around Peppimenarti, including several places along the Moyle River, flanked by majestic vine forest trees. The biggest surprise of the day was a pair of Mangrove Golden Whistlers some distance from either mangroves or sea. These birds were on the edge of a vast floodplain which supported tall cajaputs and other paperbarks where a feast of flycatchers (Restless, Broad-billed, and seemingly countless Lemon-bellied Flycatchers) vied for our attention. Several small stands of the dreaded Mimosa sounded an ominous warning about management of these important wetlands.

The second evening was spent camped in open eucalypt forest between Peppimenarti and Wadeye. During the night, the sounds of boobook owls, frogmouths and bush stone-curlews were greeted enthusiastically; that of mosquitos, less enthusiastically. An unscheduled singing contest among butcherbirds at 4.30 am sparked an avian riot, and ensured that the light sleepers were awake good and early, and due to loss of blood, generally unfit for active service for the remainder of the day. Several hours later we arrived at Wadeye, presented ourselves at the Kardu Numida Council building and spoke briefly with traditional owner Stephen Bunduck about places to visit.

The barge landing site on the edge of town gave us our first taste of mangrove birds, but some mangrove specialist species (eg. Chestnut Rail) eluded us. Lunchtime at Mission Point inlet rewarded us with several visitors from Russia (ie. migratory shorebirds), but the shores were unsuitable for the typical diversity of these birds. Surprisingly two nocturnal species were added: a Large-tailed Nightjar was flushed off its 'nest' (actually an egg deposited on dead leaves) and a relatively fresh dead specimen of a Barn Owl. A revisit to the barge landing site before dusk failed to produce the 'wanted' mangrove species, but our first Cicadabird gave its unmistakable call. We retreated to Peppimenarti after dark, to enable an early morning 'assault' on the nearby sandstone escarpment.

After another luxurious sleep at Peppimenarti school and goodbyes, we made our only visit to the rocky country (?range) east of town which featured several lovely water falls and plunge-pools. Rock-specialised birds (eg. White-quilled Rock Pigeon, Sandstone Shrike-thrush) were nowhere to be seen. It was time to head homeward, but not without stopping at several locations to make birdlists. Pleasant surprises included 20 Budgerigars wheeling overhead and a group of Red-chested Button-quail about 70 km west of the Daly River crossing. At the Daly River we found no evidence of half-eaten fishermen ……..

The total trip list was 112 species, which wasn't too bad considering the lack of large water-bodies and suitable shorebird habitat. Nectar-bearing flowers were also relatively scarce, except for those of the ubiquitous ironwood, which attracted Red-collared Lorikeets and large numbers of honeyeaters, especially Bar-breasted Honeyeaters. Significantly, however, several species recorded in the Wadeye cell appear to be at the western limits of their distribution on the continent. The Large-tailed Nightjar, Forest Kingfisher, Cicadabird, Grey Whistler, Rufous-banded and Dusky Honeyeaters are not found farther west or south, and our records for some of these are the first west of 130 degrees. It remains to fill in gaps between the NT and Western Australia for many other species, including Pied Imperial Pigeon, Varied Triller and Black Butcherbird - another expedition is brewing…

Special thanks go to Gary and Jackie Fry for organising our permit and providing us with accommodation and facilities at Peppimenarti, to Andrew Thomas for his time and assistance in the field, to Dale Saeniger at Kardu Numida for making arrangements at Wadeye and to Stephen Bunduck for permission to conduct the surveys around Wadeye, to Bryan Baker (NTU graduate) for his help in setting up contacts, and to Chris Brady for taking on the role of camp organiser and for getting us lost only once. Finally we gratefully acknowledge the support of NTU Faculty of Science, Information Technology and Education in providing two 4WD vehicles with equipment.

Copyright 1999, 2000.